In a year in which most hockey prognosticators--this writer included--picked Ottawa to finish near the bottom, if not dead last in the Eastern Conference, the Senators fashioned one of the more surprising stories of the 2011-12 NHL season, finishing 8th overall in the East and taking the NY Rangers to Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs, eventually losing 2-1 in the deciding match.
Probably the most important reason for Ottawa's success was head coach Paul MacLean. In his first year of being a head coach, MacLean was a breath of fresh air in Canada's capital. He communicated with his players, was able to get everyone on the same page early in the season, and he installed a system that was fun to play with an emphasis on puck possession, speed, and skill.
It also helped that Ottawa's veteran players, such as Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, Milan Michalek, and Sergei Gonchar all bounced back from sub-par seasons in 2010-11 and put up solid numbers under MacLean. And one can't forget the contributions of Erik Karlsson, who would go on to lead all defenseman in scoring by 25 points and then win the Norris Trophy as best defenseman at the ripe old age of 22, the youngest winner since Bobby Orr.
The Senators made a number of small moves in the off-season, which started on July 1 when they traded winger Nick Foligno to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot. The early talk is that the Ottawa native will have a chance to be Erik Karlsson's partner to start the season depending on how training camp goes.
Also on July 1, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray signed winger Guillaume Latendresse and defenseman Mike Lundin to one-year contracts. Latendresse is a great low-risk, high-reward signing as he'll have a shot at landing a scoring role among the top two lines while Lundin helps to solidify what will be a rather young blueline with the exceptions of veterans Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar. Look for Lundin to be Ottawa's sixth or seventh defenseman.
There were a number of departures in the off-season as Jesse Winchester, Filip Kuba, Alex Auld, Bobby Butler, Matt Carkner, Zenon Konopka, and Matt Gilroy all left due to either free agency or because Ottawa simply did not have any use for them anymore.
Ottawa will be even younger this season and as such, will have its share of inconsistent play, but the team is fast, skilled, and loves to score goals in MacLean's system. With few Eastern Conference teams outside of the Rangers and Hurricanes making big moves this off-season, Ottawa should be right in the thick of things in the bottom half of the playoff bracket. With good health, the Senators should finish somewhere between fifth and eighth overall.
The Big Guns
Jason Spezza (C): Like the rest of the Senators, Spezza had a fine bounceback season in 2011-12 with 84 points (34G, 50A) in 80 games, a 27-point improvement over the previous year. This season should see more of the same from Ottawa's number one center as head coach Paul Maclean's puck possession game suits Spezza to a T. He'll likely start the year centering Milan Michalek on his left side, but his other winger might not be decided until after training camp as there are a number of potential candidates. Expect him to push for 90 points once again with 35 goals certainly achievable.
Daniel Alfredsson (RW): Ottawa's captain had a brilliant season in 2011-12 which was something of a miracle considering he underwent off-season back surgery to take pressure off a nerve which had been bothering him for two to three years. Not many could have foreseen a 39-year old scoring 27 goals and adding 32 assists in 75 games, but that's exactly what he did in 2011-12. The injection of youth into Ottawa's lineup invigorated the 16-year veteran and it certainly seemed like he was having the most fun he's had in years. After Ottawa was bounced in seven games to the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2012 playoffs many wondered if Alfie would return for another season or hang up the skates for good. After taking a couple of months to decide whether his body could handle the grind of another offseason of training, Alfie decided he would indeed return for a 17th season. He'll likely line up on the second line with Kyle Turris as his center. The pair had great chemistry last year and that should continue this season. Look for Alfredsson to hit at least 20 goals and 30 assists, if not more.
Erik Karlsson (D): Karlsson was arguably last year's biggest surprise, at least to those who didn't follow the Senators that closely before the 2011-12 season. After posting 45 points and a minus-30 rating in 75 games in 2010-11, Karlsson exploded for 78 points (19 goals, 59 assists) in 81 games and finished with a very respectable plus-16 rating. In fact, what may surprise many is that 50 of his 78 points came at even strength which clearly illustrates that he's not just a one-dimensional "power play specialist." At the end of the regular season there certainly was a strong anti-Karlsson vibe amongst the hockey cognoscenti when it came to voting for the Norris Trophy, but in the end Karlsson's numbers and overall play were simply too strong too ignore: he was the first defenseman since Paul Coffey to finish in the top-10 in scoring and he lead all other defensemen in scoring by at least 25 points, the most in over 20 years. He's the youngest Norris trophy winner since Bobby Orr, who won the trophy at the age of 20. So, what can fantasy owners expect from Karlsson this season? He should top 20 goals for the first time in his career and he should get at least 50 assists. Karlsson's one of the most gifted skaters to come along in a long time and possesses elite hockey IQ and puck skills. He'll play a lot of minutes on the powerplay and at even strength. And look for head coach Paul Maclean to begin easing him into more penalty killing time as Karlsson will be another year stronger this season.
Milan Michalek (LW): Michalek had a fantastic year last season, potting a career-high 35 goals and adding 25 assists in 77 games. He remained almost completely free of injuries for the first time in years as he only missed five games due to a concussion mid-season. He'll likely line up on the left side of Jason Spezza once again this season and play on the first power play unit. He's finally developed some chemistry with Spezza after years of bouncing around between the first and second lines in Ottawa. If he remains healthy--and that's always a concern with Michalek--he should be able to crack at least 30 goals again with around 25-30 assists.
On the rise
Kyle Turris (C): Many in Ottawa were downright hostile to the fact that GM Bryan Murray traded for the disgruntled but talented center in early December, sending highly touted but wildly inconsistent defensive prospect David Rundblad to the Coyotes in exchange for Turris. That was soon forgotten as Turris quickly established himself as a bonafide offensive force, racking up 14 points (5G, 9A) in his first 20 games with the Sens. He solidified Ottawa's second line and developed great chemistry with Daniel Alfredsson to boot. Turris decided to remain in Ottawa for most of the offseason to train with strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz to improve his balance and strength. At only 22 years of age, Turris still has a lot of room to improve and is not yet close to realizing his full potential. After being rushed and having his talents squandered in Phoenix, Turris' career is finally back on track and he should have a breakout year for the Sens playing in head coach Paul MacLean's up-tempo, attacking system. Twenty goals are certainly achievable to go along with 30-40 assists. He'll play on Ottawa's second powerplay unit as well.
Two to avoid
Peter Regin (C/W): Regin signed a one-year, one-way contract in early June which came as a bit of a surprise to some as he's missed most of the last two seasons with two separate shoulder injuries. Now fully healed, he'll be a darkhorse candidate to win a top-six forward role, but expectations should be tempered due to his injury history. He's a great skater and puck-handler with good hockey sense and provides a defensive conscious when he's on the ice, so much so that he is used on the penalty kill on a regular basis. Head coach Paul MacLean likes the Dane's overall game and was not afraid to use him in all situations in the early going of the 2011-12 season. If Regin can stay healthy for the entire season, he could pot upwards of 15 goals and 25 assists, but that's a big if. This is quite likely a make-or-break year for the 26-year-old as he'll need to play well and stay healthy to win another one-way contract in the next off-season.
Chris Phillips (D): Phillips is the granddaddy of the Ottawa blueline, having played his entire career for the Senators. At 34 years of age, Phillips' best years are behind him, but in 2011-12 he had a strong bounceback year putting up five goals and 14 assists in 80 games while also maintaining a plus-12. He has little fantasy value at this point in his career, but he'll put up a lot of minutes on the penalty kill and should see solid third-pairing minutes in Ottawa this year.
Mika Zibanejad (C/W): The 19-year-old Swedish forward (Ottawa's first pick in the 2011 draft, 6th overall) played in Ottawa's first nine regular season games in 2011-12 before being sent back to Sweden to play for Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League (SEL). He scored the golden goal for team Sweden in the finals of the U20 World Junior Men's Hockey Championship against Russia, but once he returned to the SEL he suffered a concussion and never did find his game for the rest of the season. Now fully recovered, he'll look to earn a forward spot on the Senators out of training camp. Big, fast, and skilled, Z-Bad as he's known, could potentially line up on one of the top two lines, but that's likely not a realistic scenario. Interestingly enough, while he was drafted as a center he'll likely play on the wing in Ottawa if he does earn a spot. He's shown much more offensive flair on the wing than at center as there is not as much defensive responsibility, something which he's known for. Should he not make the team, Mika will start the year in the AHL playing for Ottawa's farm team in Binghamton, NY. A realistic offensive expectation is for 5-10 goals and 10-15 assists in his first full NHL season. Mika has a lot of potential, but he's still a raw prospect.
Jakob Silfverberg (W): Out of all of the potential rookies that have a shot at making the Sens this year Swedish forward Jakob Silfverberg arguably has the best shot at making the team out of camp. In fact, he could have made the team last year, but decided to return to the SEL for another year before beginning his North American career. In the SEL, he led his team to the championship and was named the MVP of both the regular season and the playoffs, potting 13 goals and seven assists in 17 playoff games. He possesses good speed and an even better shot, with the ability to get the puck off his stick very quickly. He's also responsible defensively and can be used on the penalty kill when needed. Should Silfverberg make the team out of camp look for him to be used on either the first or second line and he'll certainly see powerplay time. Fifteen goals and 20 assists are not out of the question. Silfverberg could be very valuable in keeper leagues for owners who pick him up in later rounds.
Robin Lehner (G): The 2011-12 season for Robin Lehner could be considered a wake-up call of sorts as the gifted goaltender was told in no uncertain terms that he had to shape up and mature as a professional hockey player. Sens management spoke loud and clear when they traded for Ben Bishop near the end of the season to help replace the then-injured Craig Anderson in goal. With Bishop's one-way contract, Lehner will have to prove that he's heads and tails above Bishop if he hopes to win the backup spot out of training camp. Lehner showed flashes of brilliance when he was brought up as he posted a 3-2 record with a .935 SV% and a 2.01 GAA in five appearances, including his first NHL shutout over Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins. His AHL season was inconsistent at best as he only posted a 13-22-1 record with a .907 SV% and a 3.26 GAA in 40 appearances. With all of that being said, Lehner came to Ottawa's development camp in late June this off-season in tremendous shape and with a much more mature and professional attitude that was remarked upon by several of Ottawa's management staff, including assistant GM Tim Murray. With his athleticism and size, not to mention his ultra-competitive attitude, Lehner is still one of the best goaltending prospects in the league and at only 21 years of age, he's a fantastic keeper league prospect.
Cody Ceci (D): Ceci was Ottawa's first pick (15th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and hails from the Ottawa area. The 18-year-old, 6'3" defenseman played for the OHL's Ottawa 67's in 2011-12, racking up 17 goals and 43 assists in 64 games, good for second overall in scoring amongst OHL defenseman. He's a strong and fast skater who can lead the rush up the ice and also play sound defense. One of his best pure skills is his slapshot that most scouts describe as a "bomb." He's at least two years away from challenging for a spot on Ottawa's blueline, but he already possesses an NHL-ready frame. Former Ottawa 67's coach Brian Kilrea describes Ceci as being similar to Drew Doughty in how he plays which is a good sign of his potential. While he likely won't reach Doughty's level, Ceci could certainly be an above average fantasy defenseman, putting up 40 points a year on a regular basis if he reaches his full potential. He'll spend the 2012-13 season playing for the Ottawa 67's and also has a shot at making Canada's U20 World Junior Men's hockey team.